Virginia Cattleman Keeps Herd out of River, for Bay's Sake

July 12, 2015 05:11 PM
Virginia Cattleman Keeps Herd out of River, for Bay's Sake

Keeping his herd away from the waterway is one of several best management practices John Petchul voluntarily implemented on his farm to reduce pollutant levels in the Buffalo River.​
By: Chris Cioffi, The News & Advance

John Petchul's 48 black-and-white Hereford-Gelbvieh cattle burrowed deep in the woods of their Amherst County pasture to hide from Thursday's beating sun.

"The herd's all out in the woods," Petchul said. "They wouldn't even come out (for) a bucket of grain."

Fenced away from the 10,000 feet of Buffalo River winding through his property, the cows took to the trees for relief from the heat.

Keeping his herd away from the waterway is one of several best management practices Petchul voluntarily has implemented on his farm to reduce pollutant levels in the Buffalo.

On Monday, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Environmental Protection Agency regulations restricting runoff from wastewater treatment and farm and construction runoff to the Chesapeake Bay.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Builders, the National Chicken Council and other groups, accusing the EPA of unfairly stripping state authority to regulate waterways. The three-judge panel found the arguments "unpersuasive."

Parts of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties as well as the city of Lynchburg are part of the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, which reaches from parts of New York to West Virginia.

By 2025, the EPA will require states to reduce levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 20 percent or more.

EPA policies set target pollution reductions for states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and then each state determines the methods it will use to get to the figures.

Nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich livestock waste and fertilizer entering waterways can supercharge oxygen-sucking and sunlight-blocking algae growth, killing aquatic wildlife.

Animal waste, sediment and fertilizer runoff are some of the biggest contributors to Chesapeake pollution.

Moving his cows frequently between 12 fenced sections, Petchul gives his grass and clover time to recover after it is grazed.

Tall grass and a roughly 35-foot buffer from the Buffalo River keep waste and bacteria out of the water that flows to the Tye and then the James rivers on its way to the Chesapeake Bay.

Fencing cattle out of streams also prevents river and stream bank degradation that can turn grassy hills to muddy banks, susceptible to erosion during rain events.

In Virginia, regulators met EPA goals by setting pollution restrictions on municipal water systems but left restrictions on agriculture mostly voluntary, said EPA agricultural adviser Kelly Shenk.

Currently, Virginia is on-track to achieve its target.

Since EPA restrictions have been implemented, pollutant levels in the Chesapeake have dropped, she said.

"Over the last five years, we've reduced nitrogen loads in the Chesapeake Bay by 6 percent," she said. "Phosphorus loads have reduced by 18 percent."

Petchul, a farmer and director of the Robert E. Lee Soil & Water Conservation District, had financial assistance when building his fences.

A statewide program reimbursed him for the money he spent on building fences, and for contract work running pipes from his well to cow troughs.

Watering cows with well and spring water reduces bacteria levels, cutting down on health issues and promoting growth.

For bacteria like E. coli, taking cows out of the river quickly can make the water safer for swimmers, said Amherst Watershed Coordinator Anne Marie Clarke. "It's almost an instant reduction."

The state funding is distributed by the conservation district. A 100 percent reimbursement rate expired on June 30, and was reduced to an 80 percent match, Clarke said.

About one-fourth of farmers in the conservation district, which includes Amherst, Appomattox and Campbell counties and the city of Lynchburg, have taken advantage of the program, Clarke said.

The waitlist for state-provided reimbursement funds totals about $1.5 million.

Pollutant and sediment reductions are more stringent for municipalities like Lynchburg.

A 56-page action plan gives exact details on what techniques and practices will be implemented by 2017, Water Quality Manager Erin Hawkins said.

Lynchburg is required to achieve 5 percent of its overall reduction goals by 2017, and it's already ahead of the game.

"Instead of meeting our 5 percent goal, we're going to be in the 20 percent range," she said.

The first phase is expected to cost the city about $3.4 million, but half of the cost will be matched by the state.

Runoff and stormwater drains into culverts around the city. Unlike sewage, it is sent almost directly to the James.

Installing pollution-diverting culverts, rain gardens and other types of physical structures pulls sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous from runoff, making the water cleaner and safer.

Five projects aimed at reducing pollutant levels in stormwater are scheduled for the spring of 2016.

Reducing pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and cleaning up rivers and streams is a worthy cause, but Walter Stoneman, associate director for government relations at the Virginia Farm Bureau, is troubled by the court's ruling.

"It's certainly a disappointing decision and one that affects Virginia farmers, I think, significantly," he said. "A good bit of agriculture is already regulated very thoroughly, especially our livestock operations that are in confinement."

Allowing the EPA to impose standards for state-level environmental issues sets a troubling standard, he said.

"The EPA basically is a silent partner, or a not-so-silent partner, in every agricultural operation nationwide," Stoneman said. "That's a dangerous proposition, not only in agriculture."

The farm bureau and other plaintiffs have not yet decided whether they will appeal the circuit court's ruling.

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